Saturday Morning Musing

There’s a lot to be said for doing new things. Almost every bit of life advice will include something along the lines of “expand your horizons” or “step outside of your comfort zone.” It is possible to grow if you stay focused on what you’re already good at or interested in, but you can’t really grow in new ways if you never push yourself in a new direction. If you want to meet new people, learn new things, and participate in new experiences, doing new things is your best bet.

There’s also a lot to be said for doing the same things. Only by constant practice can you even approach mastering something. You can’t really master the violin by playing the saxophone. Sure, playing other stringed instruments and listening to music will definitely help your understanding as a whole, but you’ve got to stay at least somewhat close to your chosen instrument if you want to master it. You need discipline and repetition if you want to find the peak of your abilities. If you want the highest level of recognition, mastery over your chosen field, and to transcend your limits, you need to stick to more or less the same thing.

That being said, doing nothing but new things isn’t going to let you really gain experience or enjoy something because you wouldn’t stick with it long enough to really experience it. Doing nothing but the same exact thing is stifling and will only hold you back because small variations and exploring new parts of the same concept or practice is what will eventually achieve a higher level of skill. A mixture of repetition in your new experiences allows you to really experience them on a deeper level and trying new things in your repetition lets you feel out the edges of your ability so you can focus on surpassing them. The key to both is to mix in a little bit of the other.

At least, that’s been my experience. Doing something new is great, but only by doing it a couple of times can I really get a feel for it. It’s like when you buy a new album and enjoy a few of the tracks at first, but grow to enjoy different ones (or more of them) as you listen to the album a few more times. As you listen to the individual songs multiple times, your understanding of the song grows and you notice things that you missed initially. If you only stick to doing the same thing, though, you blind yourself to what might be out there. If you only listen to the same album or the same artist, you’re going to miss out on the rest of the genre you’ve been enjoying.

The first time you do something, you’re so caught up in the newness of the experience that you don’t really have the opportunity to appreciate it. The second time, it is still very new, but you start to notice things beneath the surface. Every time after, you find something new you missed before or get another chance to appreciate something you might have only noticed in passing the first time. If you keep doing it, though, you start to lose appreciation for something you enjoyed. Whatever hidden things intrigued you so much initially become boring and plain. You stop looking for something new in the experience because you think you’ve found it all.

Right now, as I try to get my life back in order after its relatively recent upheaval, I find myself seesawing wildly from one side of the equation to the other. I want to lose myself in something new, to experience something so wholly new that I don’t have any ability to analyze it or to do anything but open myself to the experience, but I also want to lose myself in the comfortable repetition of familiar things that don’t require my participation. I want either nothing but new things or nothing but old things. I want to be able to ignore all thoughts of all the things in my life that have been repetitions of new things and new aspects of old things because they’re tied up with a lot of complex emotions that I can only feel right now. I can’t do anything to them but experience them and wait for them to pass. For someone who wants to be able to control every aspect of their life, it can be a little hard to swallow the fact that there isn’t always something proactive I can do about what I’m feeling.

So I anxiously pick it at in the back of my mind and I wait. Impatiently. Unfortunately, reclaiming my life for myself is easier said than done and it requires a good deal more repetition of new experiences that I anticipated. It is interesting to see just how much of my life changed over the past year. To see how much of it feels like it no longer belongs to me alone. How often I feel as if something important is missing as I do things that I never imagined would belong to anyone but me.

Most of my relationships before this one where in college and the one that wasn’t in college was immediately after college. I didn’t have a life the same way I do now, with little routines, habits, and a set of things I kind of just assume will be a part of my daily life. Back then, everything was fluid, apt to change, and exciting. Now, I struggle to find meaning in the routines and to find purpose in pushing myself out of my comfort zone. People entering and exiting my life felt so natural back then and I never did anything long enough to feel like it belonged to me or to anyone else. Now, I feel like there’s a giant hole in my life and no one has even left it, not really. We’re just different now and that little, enormous shift was enough to throw the orbit of my life out of balance.

I guess I don’t really know what I want my life to be. I don’t want it to be a series of days where I repeat everything in new ways until I achieve mastery of whatever I’m working on. I don’t think I want it to be casual repetition of a string of new things, either. I want to say it should be a mixture of both things, but that feels like a cop-out as I write this. I feel like there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for how I feel, hovering just on the edge of my ability to voice it, but I can’t quite get it to take the one last step I need to be able to put it to words.

I feel like being able to finally understand that thought, to be able to put it precisely to words, would answer a lot of the questions I’ve been asking myself for the past couple years. I don’t think it will solve my problems or fix anything, but I feel like it’s the key to figuring out how to solve some of my problems and fix some of the things that feel broken. Maybe, after enough new experiences and enough honing my craft, I’ll find the right thought and the right expression. Maybe.

The Weight of Air

Invisible clouds on the hidden horizon
Press against silent hills and tall trees,
All blended together by the unseen sun
And a moon too furtive to show.

The dusky sky delays dawn
As a shimmer of heavy grey haze,
Stale moisture that rose to rain,
Rules on high and patiently presses
On a world whose bated breath
Mocks the still waiting wind.

Falling drops playfully promise
Relief from the weary weight
That clings to sticky skin
But, like a kiss that never comes,
Remains only a half-hearted hope.

Returning to the Borderlands

Borderlands is one of my favorite game series, second to only the Legend of Zelda series. There’s guns, gnarly explosions, the ability to instantly reduce someone to a red mist and chunks if you do enough damage, stupidly high numbers, an incredible cast of hilarious characters, guns with ridiculous effects, weird missions, plenty of jokes, and some incredibly stirring moments. These games, and the second one in particular, have been responsible for some of the strongest emotions I’ve ever felt as a result of a video game, and they did it all by creating an over-the-top and crazy world with an equally over-the-top and crazy cast that are still entirely real and believable. And they say you can’t really tell an interesting story in a first-person shooter.

Since the second one, Borderlands 2, is my favorite, I’m going to focus on that one. When you start a game these days, you can pick one of six playable characters, each with their own unique back stories, class abilities, and role. Since the game has cooperative play for up to four players, each character tends to fall into one of the roles you find in a typical RPG. Axton, the commando, is the party tank. Maya, the siren, is the party cleric. Zero, the number (assassin), is the rogue. Salvador, the Gunzerker, is the blasty mage. Krieg, the psycho, is the barbarian. Gage, the mechromancer, is the off-tank. Each of the characters has three skill trees that allows you to focus them toward one part of their role over another. Axton, my personal favorite, can focus on hit points, regeneration, and not dying; putting out tons of damage, staying mobile, and tactical damage; or creating a turret that is going to be a huge threat to all of your enemies, thereby diverting their attention away from you.

No matter which character you pick, the story stays pretty much the same, aside from a slight variety in the way the NPCs interact with you and what background information you’re given for your character. Handsome Jack, the owner of mega-corporation Hyperion, wants to dig up a vault and unleash the creature within it upon the planet, removing the bandits and people who live on it in order to turn it into what he considers a more peaceful, happy planet. He’s willing to kill anyone he has to in order to do what he thinks is best, constantly blames the player for forcing his hand, and seems to delight in the violence he gets to personally inflict on the people who defy his tyranny. Your character survives a train wreck and is then recruited by the anti-Hyperion resistance in order to strike back against Handsome Jack in an attempt to gain control of the creature inside the hidden vault first, so you can unleash it upon Hyperion instead.

Needless to say, a lot of crazy stuff happens that severely complicates everything. All the while, as you try to sort out the plot and turn in as many side-quests as you can, you’re collecting guns with crazy effects like shooting in bursts of thirteen that, when shot into a wall, create a low-quality rendition of the oldest cave paintings in the world. Or guns that never run out of ammo, guns that generate their own ammo, guns that explode when you attempt to reload them so that you never have to bother with replacing ammo clips, grenades named after classic D&D spells, and automatic sniper rifles that get more accurate the longer you hold the trigger down. Half the fun of the game is seeing what crazy guns you get and what their crazy effects do and, since the guns are all entirely randomized aside from a few important ones, it is incredibly unlucky that you’ll encounter the same gun twice.

As you move through the missions, gaining levels and collecting loot, you get to unlock new powers and abilities, turning your character into a one-person murder machine whose only weakness is one-shot kill attacks like some of the incredibly powerful enemies have and the fact that you sometimes just run out of bullets. The reason Axton is my favorite is because he not only just gets straight boosts to his damage, he also gets incredible health regeneration. He is my ideal character for a solo game because I don’t need to worry about dying as much and can take my time to line up the head-shots that’ll make each fight a breeze. It is incredibly rewarding to watch the huge numbers pop up as I shoot a bandit or bizarre creature in its weak point. There are ways to get higher numbers with other characters, but that’s contingent on luck and the right combination of guns and abilities.

While some missions can be difficult because of the requirements or that the way the game is designed to accommodate both solo play and cooperative play with your friends, the game is also forgiving. Hit boxes for most enemies and weak points are rather larger than they look and there are ways to bypass any amount of aiming deficiency. Shotguns, for one. Grenades, combat abilities, melee attacks, and stubborn refusal to do anything but work on improving your aim until you can nail a head-shot from across the map also work really well. Your best bet, and the most fun way to experience the game in my opinion, is to play with at least one other friend. The cooperative experience only adds to the game, since it makes it a lot easier to just plow through whatever enemies are blocking your way forward, to a degree. There are usually more enemies as a result of extra players by your side, but a friend can help you get back on your feet if you’ve gone down far more easily than if you need to rely on killing an enemy.

If you don’t mind a little gore on occasion and enjoy first-person shooters, I cannot recommend Borderlands 2 (and the rest of the family) strongly enough. It is incredibly fun and, though the pacing can slow to a crawl at times of heavy side-questing, is never boring. Check it out for the PC (my recommendation) or the re-release put out on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. You can’t go wrong, no matter how you choose to enjoy it.

This Book Stole my Attention for an Entire Day

After I finished reading Priest by Matthew Colville, I immediately picked up the sequel, Thief. It takes place immediately after the first book, though the focus has shifted a little bit. Instead of sticking almost solely to the protagonist, the view shifts between him and a few of the other important characters. Haden is certainly an interesting character to follow–that’s kind of the requirement to be a protagonist–but it was also incredibly informative to see him through the eyes of the people around him. Beyond that, the second book was an incredible step forward in depicting the scenes and the fight descriptions were exponentially better. I had to put it down shortly after picking it up in order to play D&D, but I picked it up immediately afterward and accidentally stayed up way too late in order to read more of it.

The plot picks up immediately where the first book left off, throwing in enough background information that a new reader would be able to figure out what is going on but not so much that it gets onerous for an established reader to get through. The twists from the last book are still twists, as Colville often reveals the plot information by exposing other characters to either what happened in the first book or some offshoot of it coming back to bite someone else. There are still enough new twists and plot hooks to keep you pulled in and even more of the wonderful world-building that lets you feel the size of the history without spending more time than necessary talking about it. We’re still not sure what happened to split up the group of adventurers that Haden belonged to, but we do discovered more of what happened as a result of the split. We meet some more of his old friends and discover a little more about the life that Haden lived before he retired. We also get to see more of the incredible weapons, artifacts, and allies he has gained over the course of his career and they are just as incredibly powerful and crazy as you’d expect from a high-leveled D&D campaign. Demigods, wealth beyond the dreams of most mortals, and a casual arrogance when it comes to the importance of stuff. Who cares if your building burned down when you’ve got the money to build a new one or for a wizard to just make it not have burned down in the first place?

I honestly really enjoyed seeing the sort of crazy stuff that is so common to D&D enter into a more typical fantasy novel. The wealth thing I’ve already mentioned, but the incredible fights are also a part of it. Haden gets into it with assassins, a member of his old party who he never liked, a giant elf-creature that is basically a minor deity, and a bunch of weird “undead” creatures that aren’t really undead. He overcomes all of his opponents with the exclusion of the other adventurer. He almost dies half the time, but that’s how a lot of the fights in D&D go: you almost die, but that’s only because you focused on ending the fight as quickly as possible. You could have taken a little more time to avoid injury or fix a problem, but you knew that you’d be able to overcome anything but death itself as long as you were still alive at the end of the battle. He gets poisoned by the assassins he fights, but he doesn’t waste time healing the wounds or purifying his blood, he just kills every assassin in maybe half a minute and then finally fixes himself. Even the description of the fight feels short and brutal, reflecting the way the fight would have seemed to anyone participating in it. The big fight with his ex party member is equally brutal, each participant a hair from death at any given time, only surviving by relying on their instinct, guts, and luck. It was incredible to read.

I enjoyed the expanded cast since it brought a lot of interesting character development to the books and highlighted the way we tend to make assumptions about the people we encounter in our lives. I enjoyed one of the relationships, between Haden and a friend he made a dozen years prior to the novel, and how it develops in this book as Haden realizes he maybe didn’t know as much about his friend as he thought he did, but that doesn’t mean his friend isn’t the man he’d come to appreciate and respect. None of the characters ever feel one-dimensional and, while the villain does go on a bit of a stereotypical “I’m all-powerful and can do whatever I want without consequence!” bender, his megalomania is somewhat excused by the way he’s actually cleverly set up his organization and laid his plans. If it wasn’t for Haden and a few things that can be chalked up to back luck for the villain, he’d have been entirely right. No one would have been able to stop him, even if he walked up to the king and confessed his crimes.

There were more spelling and grammar errors in this one, but the only thing that actually threw me off was a couple of places where the wrong name or pronouns were used as it made it seem like the wrong people were saying things or showing up randomly in scenes they couldn’t have been in. That’s a small price to pay for two really solid, incredibly fun books. Since Colville has plans to make some changes and do some editing, I think they both (but especially Thief) have the potential to be incredibly fun reads.

I hate that I have to wait a while longer (probably at least a couple of years, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more than that) for the next book and the updates Colville plans to make, but I really think Priest and Thief are both really solid already. I suggest picking them up if you’re looking for a fun fantasy book and don’t mind starting a series that doesn’t really have a release schedule of any kind.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 17

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


True to her word, Camille knew where the guns were. They were a few armories scattered throughout the entire base, one in each wing and two inside the main hall. Unfortunately, the ones in our wing was locked and none of our keys fit. Either Trevor hadn’t been given a key to the armories or Lucas had somehow gotten both. All that really mattered was that we were stuck, weaponless, trying to sneak through the wing and find our companions.

By the time we were eventually discovered, Camille had killed another five guards. In that time, we’d found two Wayfinders, all of the Nomad children, and the old Nomad matriarch. We’d sent them to the far end of the wing, that we cleared first, to wait for weapons and more people, so only Camille and I were getting shot at as we hid around a corner and evaluated our nonexistent options.

“All I’ve got is a few good ‘I surrender’ and ‘please don’t shoot me’ puns, but I don’t think they actually cause people pain, despite what Lucas is always saying.” I gently massaged my bruised temples and tried to ignore the burst of pain that accompanied the report of every gun.

“I’ve got a few throwing knives, but I wouldn’t chance them at this range.”

“Too far?”

“That, plus body armor and not being able to take my time while aiming. It’s easy to point and squeeze around a corner, not so much throw a knife.”

“Fair.”

“We could just wait until reinforcements show up now that whatever passes for an alarm in this concrete hole has to be going off. Then, when they come around the corner to kill us, we can try to disarm them and take their guns.”

“Or we could quietly leave and find a different way to the other cells?” I picked at a bit of dried blood just below my hairline and, after a moment’s examination, flicked the small brown flakes away. “Though, I don’t really like our chances if they realize we retreated down this long hallway full of nothing but cells.”

“Speaking of.” Camille poked her head around the corner quickly, flipped the bandits at the far end the bird, and then ducked back as the bullets started flying again. “Gotta make sure they know we’re still here.”

“I thought we wanted them to rush us or turn around the corner unaware.”

Camille nodded and flicked a bit of concrete into the open. “That would be good. Risky, but good. Instead of something with a high likelihood of getting us killed, I’m prefer it if Lucas noticed the gunfire from our wing and came to our rescue.”

“That’d be convenient, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Camille poked her head around the corner again, at a different height. “You assholes ready to give up, yet?”

“Come out with your hands up right now and we will not harm you as we return you to your cells.” The same voice that urged our surrender during every lull in the hail of bullets called out again. “We don’t want to keep wasting ammo and none of us are dumb enough to come around the corner to get you.”

Camille pulled her head back and arched an eyebrow as I gestured for her to swap spots with me. “How do we know you’re not just saying that so we let our guard down?” I gestured for Camille to head toward the stairs and winked. “I don’t think shooting at us over something as little as a jailbreak is very trustworthy.”

Camille silently got to her feet and moved past me, heading toward the stairs that led down to the first floor and the only other path out of the wing. I saw her roll her eyes as I continued over the occasional bullet. “I might be willing to give surrender a shot, but I’ll admit I’m worried about you doing the same thing.”

Camille stopped moving as the bullets stopped entirely. Once the commanding voice started speaking, she went right back to creeping down the hallway. “I’m sorry, but are you making puns right now?”

“Yeah. I’m gunning for ‘comedian of the year.’”

There were almost a full minute of silence that I filled with manic laughter, loud enough to continue covering Camille’s movement toward the stairs while still quiet enough to hear if the heavily armed bandits started moving. Finally, the commander spoke again. “You’re making puns. Right now. While we shoot at you.”

As if to prove the absurdity of the situation, someone fired off a few rounds that embedded themselves into the concrete wall opposite me, sending more dust and small composite chips flying through the air. After the echoes died down I watched Camille slip down the stairs as I continued my assault. “You can come get us, if you want, but I’m going to warn you that people who meet me for the first time usually find my behavior rather disarming. I’d really hate to jump the gun on moving to that stage of our relationship.”

In the silence that followed, I heard someone mutter. “Anyone got any grenades?” followed by “That’d destroy the whole hallway. Just give it another minute or two and this will all be over.” Without missing a beat, the first voice muttered “I don’t know if I can take this for another minute or two.”

“Don’t count your bullets before they’re fired!” I poked my head around the corner and threw a couple of the larger chunks of concrete at the bandits. “Also, gun to my head, I’m pretty sure I could take your entire group single-handedly.”

I ducked back as more bullets chipped away at the corner and tried to hold back the tension bubbling out of my throat as laughter. If we weren’t at risk of dying, I’d find the whole thing hilarious. It was so easy to goad them and all they did was waste bullets in response. Five minutes into the dumbest standoff in my entire life and I could barely keep it together because all they had to do is go wide around the corner and they’d have us. Keep a few people on the near wall, but further away, to rush us if they wanted us alive. If it was any of my Wayfinders on the other side of this engagement, it would have been over four and a half minutes ago.

I kept hurling puns and bits of concrete for another two minutes before Camille returned, toting two assault rifles, a few clips of ammo, and a fresh gash in her left arm. I quickly bound it while Camille loaded both guns and parsed the ammo. A minute after I fell silent, as the first brave soul started adventuring forward, Camille and I poked around the corner, guns blazing. Thirty seconds later, we were gathering up all the gear we could before retreating back to where we’d left our companions.

Twice more, we got into a stand-off. Twice more, they tried to outmaneuver us by sending a few people around behind us using the lower floor. Twice more, we killed them all while they dithered about what to do. This time, though, we had more Wayfinders and the old woman Nomad who turned out to be a better shot than me. By the time we’d cleared the wing, we’d gathered up a total of six more Wayfinders, two more Nomads, a dozen extra guns, ammo, and a key to the armory where we found all our insulating gear and some basic body armor.

When it finally came time to leave the wing, we were met with a steel door. No amount of pushing or shoving would budge it and hammering on it did nothing but make my head ring. One of the Nomads tried to shoot it, but only succeeded in nearly taking out one of the Wayfinders with a ricocheting bullet. After scolding them and taking away their gun, Camille went back to the armory for a few grenades. Blowing the wall up around the door worked better than I thought it would, but it left us with a giant hole down to the first floor.

I volunteered to be the first across, since we could only four people could provide covering fire if it was needed. After they’d all lined up against the walls and Camille gave me the nod, I leapt across the hole, rolled to my feet, and caught the gun one of the other Wayfinders tossed me. I cleared the hallway and gestured for the Wayfinders to follow. The Nomads were going to take refuge in the armory with their children and our gear, so we could focus on sweeping through the bandit stronghold.

Leaving the rest of the Wayfinders behind to protect our backs and hold the hallway connecting the wings and the main hall. Camille and I took off down the eastern wing. As soon as we unbolted the heavy steel door to get into the main part of the wing, we heard gunfire coming from around the corner and started running. We came upon the back of a nearly sealed checkpoint, a steel barricade propped in the hallway with only a few openings in it for the bandits to fire through. Fortunately for us, they were facing the other direction.

Without breaking stride, Camille started firing, mowing down bandits as she charged up to engage in hand-to-hand combat. I dropped to a knee and started putting rounds into the backs of bandits, working my way from the middle to the opposite side from Camille. After I ran out, I ran forward, ejecting the magazine from the rifle as I went. Camille had already disarmed a couple of the surviving bandits, but two still had guns and were about to start shooting again, their allies be damned, until I crashed into them. Using the rifle as a club, I knocked them both senseless quickly and then turned to help Camille with the last couple she was fighting.

While Camille finished off the bandits, I started dislodging the barricade while yelling “don’t shoot! Camille and I killed them all.”

“Took you guys long enough!” Lucas and a couple of the missing Wayfinders poked their heads around the corner. “I thought we were going to have to wait for them to run out of bullets!”

I finished pulling open the barricade and flinched as I finally got a look at what lay around beyond it. Lucas’ group had run into a trap. There were a handful of dead Nomads and two dead Wayfinders lying on the ground, just around the corner. Lucas was being supported by the two Wayfinders with him as he limped toward me with a hole in his thigh. “Sorry, Cap. We’d cleared out two groups already and didn’t think there’d be a barricade. Every other group just collapsed as soon as we rounded the corner. We’ve got a lot of injured.”

I nodded and carefully made my way to the corner. Sitting on the ground was the rest of the nomads and most of the missing Wayfinders. Most of the Wayfinders and Nomads had minor injuries and were getting to their feet, but a few had injuries as bad as Lucas’ leg and two Wayfinders were on the ground, unconscious. Natalie wasn’t anywhere amongst them and the quiet anxiety that had been gnawing at the pit of my stomach roared to life and started taking giant bites.

Before panic could set in, I busied myself with helping the less injured Wayfinders rig up stretchers for the unconscious Wayfinders. After that, we moved back to toward the hallways between the wings and started figuring out how to get everyone across the hole in the floor of the western wing.

By the time we’d gotten everyone collected together and the severely injured down to the first floor of the western wing and into the armory, the bandit base felt eerily quiet. There’d been no sign of movement or sound of any kind from the main hall while we went about fortifying the guards outside of the armory and no one approached us as we gathered outside the door we’d blasted off the wall.

“Natalie and Jonathan are the only Wayfinders unaccounted for.”

Camille nodded. “And we’ve checked every nook and cranny in both wings. There’s nowhere else they could be but the main hall.”

“You hear that, everyone?” I turned to the group of Wayfinders and Nomads, each grimly clutching a rifle and a few extra rounds of ammo. Only a few Wayfinders had grenades, since Camille had used most of what we had to blow up the door and Lucas’ group hadn’t found any. “Check your fire and make sure you’re not shooting one of our people. If anyone surrenders, collected them and bind their hands. We’ve got plenty of heavy-duty zip-ties thanks to all the guards.”

“Keep an eye out for officers and the Laborers.” Camille stepped forward and addressed the Nomads specifically. “Anyone who looks important or familiar. Our people will probably be with them. Try to remember that the Wayfinders will be slim but well-built and a bit older while all of the laborers will be young men with a decent amount of muscle. Shoot the laborers but not the Wayfinders. If you think you’re not going to be able to tell the difference, turn around and go back to the armory. We don’t have time for hesitation.”

After a few seconds, Camille nodded. “Alright, we’re going to go in as fast and as hard as we can. Don’t waste bullets, follow the Wayfinders in your group, and keep an eye out for our people. We need them to survive once we get out of here. Got that?” Every one of the Nomads nodded. “Good. On my signal.”

I turned to Camille. “I’m following you. Lead the way and I’ll sweep up whatever you don’t catch as you go.”

“Always batting cleanup.” Camille smirked and disengaged the safety on her rifle. “I can’t promise there’ll be anything for you to do.”

“As long as we get Natalie and Jonathan back, I don’t care.”

Camille nodded one last time, took a deep breath, and yanked the door open.

Tabletop Highlight: Creativity in Monsters

There’s a D&D joke that’s gone around the internet a few dozen times about Mimics. “The barkeeper asked why we carried weapons on us in the bar. I said ‘Mimics.’ The barkeeper laughed, the party laughed, the table laughed, we killed the table. It was a good time.” It does a good job of illustrating the potential dangers a D&D party might face and why most tabletop players have a heavy dose of what we like to call “adventurer’s paranoia.” It’s the idea that almost anything can wind up wanting to attack adventurers and crazy things like chests that want to eat you, talking tables, and ceilings that decide they want to invade your personal space are all relatively normal.

If you spend any amount of time looking through D&D source-books, you find a whole slew of things specifically designed to be hidden until they’re eating you. There are all manner of horrible tree or stump creatures that will destroy an unwary party, not to mention all the horrific vines, lichen, and fungi that will kill you before you’re aware they’re trying. Then there are the ravenous beasts of the various wildernesses, territorial intelligent monsters, magical traps, and let’s not forget the Demons/Celestials/Fey who sometimes just want to screw around with mortals because they’re bored. Chairs come to life, the suits of armor in castles are almost always going to attack you, paintings can hide mesmerizing or mind-control magic traps, and even something as simple as a hallway can turn into a deadly gauntlet of hidden pits, spring-assisted blades, and magical fire at a moment’s notice. Carelessness causes death and only a screwy mind filled to the brim with paranoia can save you and your allies.

That being said, a lot of D&D campaigns don’t make use of all of these things. Traps are difficult to set up and often unrewarding from a DM’s perspective because two skill checks can bypass them entirely. Bringing the outer-realms of existence into the mortal plane is often a decision made by the story the DM has set up or the players have started, and that’s a hugely complex set of worlds to bring into any game without sufficient preparation. Everything takes a lot of work to set up and the players often wind up avoiding all of your preparation in favor of some unexpected route that doesn’t fit anything you’ve made. Monsters and encounters created off the cuff are rarely as creative and unique as the stuff you’d spent a week of evenings planning.

In my experience, you best bet is to always make sure to include a few intelligent monsters. If they’re smart, it means they have likely survived for a long time and have a wealth of experience to draw on when it comes to screwing with the party. Sure, the hallway doesn’t have any traps, but maybe a fleeing monster ruffled the carpet a bit because he knows the adventurers following him will be proceeding carefully. If they think there’s a trap, they’ll take the time to be thorough, giving the monster and its allies time to better prepare.

Ambush predators are almost always intelligent as well, with a whole history of successfully managing to prey on inattentive mortals. There wouldn’t be mimics pretending to be treasure chests if it hadn’t worked really well for a long time. Maybe one of them is smarter than the others and uses the shapes of its less-intelligent brethren to guide its own decisions. My favorite example of this was a mimic my party encountered. Elsewhere, there was a mimic as a treasure chest and a mimic as a door, so this one decided to assume the shape of the door frame rather than the door, because it knew it wouldn’t catch anyone off guard if it was just another door.

It is important to remember that, just because the creature is a monster doesn’t mean it’s fine dying or an idiot. Yeah, it would probably suck for your party’s caster if the monstrous stump attack it first, since the caster has so few hit-points and no ability to resist the monster’s poison, but why the heck would a tree stump smart enough to hide and attack opportune prey attack the armor-covered party tank who could shrug off all its hits? Controlled monsters require specific direction to differentiate, but any free-willed creature should be able to tell the difference between an easy target and a difficult one.

If you’re looking for ideas to justify your players’ paranoia, the internet has some really great ideas. Homebrew monsters are fine since all you need to do is make sure it isn’t going to be an unfair, unwinnable fight. If you’re looking for this sort of thing, you’ve probably gotten fudging things well in-hand, so being able to take the idea of an overly powerful homebrew creature and bringing it down to being an appropriate challenge for your player should be easy. If the world is really as full of dangers as they players think it is, make sure not to let them down, you know?

When it comes to other creatures, like goblins and kobolds and anything intelligent, the idea that they’re willing to fight to their death is a little far-fetched. Maybe the fight was brutish and short, like the time my party killed three rocs in the time it took for them to make a first approach, but any drawn-out fight should mean the losing party has the chance to surrender or flee. No squad of goblin soldiers is going to fight to the death without some level of magical compulsion or incredible fear of whatever is directing them. Or they’re fanatics. Fanatics love fighting to the death. Just make sure they’ve got weird tattoos, clothing, and jewelry.

Just make your monsters interesting if your players want a little depth or fanatical and crazy if they just want to kick down doors and kill stuff. Monsters should reflect the your setting’s level of realism if you want your sessions to be believable. Good monsters and enemies are an important part of making the game feel real for your players.

Honestly, I could probably do an entire week of posts on making good monsters. This catch-all post feels a little scattered to me, so I think I’ll revisit this once I’ve finished developing (and running) the dungeon my players are about to face since it is going to be all about realistic, intelligent, and creative monsters. This is going to be a lot of fun for me and will hopefully give my players the opportunity to rise to new challenges.

The Brown Package

Sal was chosen to do a special job. Employment can happen to anyone, if they’re not careful, and Sal was no exception.

Post-scarcity society was pretty good. Sal never needed to work to put food on the table or a roof over their head. Those things had always just been there. An entire lifetime of ease and self-exploration came to an abrupt halt when, instead of food, a tablet appeared on Sal’s table.

“If you want to continue living off the largess of society, there is a task you must complete. If you do not, you will never eat again.”

Sal pondered those words as they walked down the street toward the Mag station. Death seemed like a high price to pay for not delivering a bunch of bundles wrapped in brown fiber. Sal was curious and more than a little frustrated that their attempt to open one of the packages had result in an alarm. A flashing warning that said disobeying the instructions would lead to instant death.

By the time Sal got to the station and dropped off the first package, they were dying of curiosity. Deciding death was preferable to not knowing what was inside the package, Sal ripped one open as they stood in the center of the daily chaos of the Mag station. Inside was a small bundle of red sticks, a tangle of wires, and a retro-styled digital clock.

Sal started to poke one of the sticks, but the clock start beeping. Something deep inside Sal started panicking, so they threw the bundle as far as they could. As it reached the peak of its flight, the bundle flashed, let out a huge boom, and burst into balloons, confetti, and some holo clapping hands while the words “Happy Retirement, Jerry!” flashed above it all.

Saturday Morning Musing

Trying to put together gear and clothing for a medieval combat society’s summer event is a hassle. I enjoy Belegarth–the foam fighting system I participate in every Thursday–because it can be a ton of fun to run around and hit other people with foam weapons without having to worry about role-playing or special rules. All you have to do in Belegarth is hit them hard enough for them to count it as a real hit and not hit them in the head. Pretty simple, when it comes down to it. At least, that’s how it plays out in practices. I’m sure there are more rules that come into play when participating in the huge fights that happen during national events, but I haven’t done any of those so I wouldn’t really know about them.

Even when it comes to creating gear and clothing for events, most of the rules revolve around ensuring safety in a full-force sport. There are a few rules about “garb” for events, but mostly people just don’t want to see anything overtly modern like screen-printed t-shirts and cargo shorts. Which is unfortunately eighty percent of my wardrobe. Since the rules are fairly lax and most people aren’t sticklers, you can get away with loose fabric pants with the cuffs removed and plain shirts with a triangle cut out of the neck and the cuffs removed from any long sleeves. Removing the cuffs is the big thing, apparently.

There are, of course, more elaborate methods of creating garb. Sewing loose pants from some dark-colored fabric, throwing together complex top assemblies made of fashionably arranged bits of fabric that are going to get absolutely shredded as soon as you start fighting, tunics, surcoats, tabards, sashes, belts that are tied instead of buckled or cinched, and more! They all take a surprisingly large amount of work and knowledge if you want to do them right, though. Pants made of two bits of fabric seem like an easy thing to make, especially if you have a sewing machine, but there’s a lot of work that goes into making sure the legs are the right width in the right places, that the seams are straight, and that there’s adequate room in the crotch and rear for whatever you’ve got going on there. A tabard is essentially a long bit of cloth with a hole for your head and a design on it if you’re feeling fancy, but you’ve still gotta make sure it fights well, ties up properly, and isn’t so long that you’re tripping on it or dragging it behind you.

Now, I’ve done costuming before. I’ve helped to create various articles of clothing for theatrical products. Put in my time in the sewing mines, as I like to think of it. I still suck at it, despite that. I can follow a pattern easily enough but, even with a really good sewing machine, I have trouble keeping everything straight, un-bunched, and turned around the right way. The second pair of pants I ever made had one seam on the inside and one on the outside. I can do clothing repair by hand easily and quickly if I’ve got a sewing kit, but that’s an entirely different beast. I would not want to embark on a bigger creation project without either guidance or a strict pattern to follow. While those things exist, they can be hard to line up at the last-minute when you’ve spent the last few months procrastinating until about a week before you need the clothes you’re still not sure how to make.

I have no one to blame but myself.

Despite the fact that I’m probably going to need to either give up all my evenings or go to an event in what feels like really low-quality garb, I’m excited for the event. Despite participating in this combat society on and off for over four years, I’ve never actually gone to an event. Fighting is incredibly stressful for me as even a minor verbal conflict can be enough to exhaust me, and fighting as a part of a large group sounds like a nightmare made real. Half the reason I fight is to prove to myself that I am capable of overcoming my limitations and proving to myself that my mental health issues don’t limit me, so going to an event seems like a good idea to aim for. Next weekend’s event is going to be relatively small, as far as events go, and I don’t really plan to fight for very long during it, if at all, so I should be fine. I might fight for an hour just to prove I can and help me get used to the idea before I attend a national event or try to fight in a huge battle with hundreds of other people. Dip my toe in the waters, so to speak.

There’s plenty to do at these events without fighting, though, so I’m going to try to keep myself as busy as I can while I’m at the event. If I can stay busy and outside the fighting for most of it, I should be fine. Plus, I’m a huge fan of anything that keeps me busy and focused lately. Keeps my mind away from any dangerous spirals. Toward that end, I’m going to start obsessing about making the perfect fighting pants for next Saturday and see if I can figure out how to make them the kind of pants that can also be shorts since I’m going to get heat exhaustion if I have to wear pants and run around outside all day. There’s a line, just a little bit past the knee, where they can wind up being both. That’s my target. We’ll see how many tries it takes me to hit it.

Sleep Deprived

I no longer sleep because I think of you.

I can sleep no longer
              because I think of you

My weary eyes refuse to shut again
And all my dreams reach fever-pitch
Before I lurch awake
                           clutching sheets
That have tangled me in my sleep

Weary eyes with constant crusts
              forming at the corners
Unblinking and blankly stare
At my desk while I try to work

I speak in stifled yawns to my own hands
As my bleary eyes plod through the day
              and bits of conversation
                             lose all
                                          connection
                                                        and meaning

I speak in stifled yawns and bleary eyes
As I vaguely try to find my notebook
So I can write down each of the replies
I’ll no longer remember tomorrow
No one knows what to make of this
And all I can tell them is it will be fine
              at some point in the future
For now
              I trace big lines on paper
              where I was supposed to write words
And      drift away         until I can leave
To find myself a moor for the evening.

This Week’s Theme isn’t Evolving at all!

In keeping with this week’s unofficial theme, let’s talk about Evolve! Matthew Colville worked for Turtle Rock Studios as a writer on the creative team that designed the world and many of the core aspects of what would eventually become the asymmetrical multiplayer game, Evolve. The world was incredibly interesting and the core concept was novel, so pre-release reactions to the game were very positive. It even sold well when it came out, but it was plagued by a variety of problems that ultimately lead to its demise and the shut-down of its servers a couple of years after release.

The basic plot of the game is that you and your allies are a squad of monster killers that are occasionally called in to protect an at-risk Human colony on a new planet. The planet in question, Shear, seemed like a great place at first, but the colonies were eventually attacked by native inhabitants that showed the ability to quickly evolve in response to whatever defenses the Humans mounted. In each mission, you and your three human allies are tasked with taking out the monster. The monster, another human player, is tasked with killing all of the hunters or completing an objective (destroy a particular part of a facility or something like that). It is possible to play with fewer than 5 human players as you can set up a game with one to four AI players, but the main mode of play is online with a group of humans.

In concept, the game was a lot of fun. The battles were interesting and, though every game I played ended with the hunters winning, it was still a lot of fun to play the monster since there aren’t many games out there that have a similar style. It can be really fun to basically play hide-and-go-seek with a bunch of people online. It can also be incredibly frustrating if they always, unerringly hunt you down before you have a chance to even get established. Or if they seem to always find you as you find a hidey-hole in which to begin the annoyingly slow process of “evolving” so that you’re forced to give up your progress and flee only for it to happen again the next time you think you’re safe. Or if you wind up playing two dozen matches in row as the monster since none of your friends play the game and solo-queuing seems to always mean getting stuck as the monster.

There were a lot of problems once you got past the novelty of the game. You needed a bunch of dumb, negligent players on the hunter side of things for the monster to win and I don’t think I ever won as the monster and won maybe half of the matches I played as a hunter because my fellow hunters seemed to be incapable of working together or rudimentary communication. My hunter teams would almost always start to fall apart as soon as we started losing. Everyone ran off in their own direction, certain they alone knew what to do, and got picked off by the monster who was able to easily take us down when we separated. In short, it was every problem you’ve ever faced with online multiplayer compounded by a higher-than-average frequency of one-sided fights.

All that is without mentioning the various exploits and bugs that showed up every few weeks. The developers didn’t update very frequently (which we eventually learned wasn’t the fault of the developers but the publishing company who wouldn’t put out updates more than once every few months), so a lot of exploits and broken gear/abilities/etc stayed around long enough to make it difficult to play against.

Most of the problems could have been fixed with enough software patches and a better response from the PR team of the publisher, but they seemed very uninterested in trying to please their customers once the game had achieved commercial success. I’m sure there’s most to it than a simple money grab from the studio that published the game, but that’s what it felt like at the time and it is ultimately why I stopped playing the game.

Looking into it now, after I discovered that Matthew Colville was a part of the creation of this game and did some research since the way I felt everything played out didn’t seem to jive with the way he acted in his videos and various online accounts, I’ve learned a lot. Originally, the game team was put together to create an alien world and that’s what they did. Incredible art, different modes of evolution, how species adapt to their environment, and so much more came out of their first years of work. It wasn’t until about two years of this research and development had passed that they learned the game was going to take the form we got: asymmetrical shooter. If it had been an exploration game or a team shooter against only computers, that would have been another thing entirely. I would have loved the shit out of the game if it hadn’t been so heavily dependent on the only PvP multiplayer.

It was nice to learn that the game they poured their hearts into wasn’t the game we got. I can only imagine how disappointed the team was when they learned what all their research and work was going to turn into. From some of Matthew Colville’s posts on the matter, it sounds like they didn’t get much of a choice in the matter since no one at the publisher believed that an exploration or PvE game would sell enough to pay for the development and distribution costs. I’m pretty sure a lot of people who have bought that and the studio would be swimming in all the money they got from it if they’d actually delivered the game the writers and artists had spent two years creating. It would have been like what No Man’s Sky could have been if it hadn’t been hyped so idiotically when it was still clearly far from complete.

Honestly, as the game slowly winds its way to complete shutdown (the servers are being turned off for good in september), I’ve gone back to play it a couple of times. It still isn’t the game I would like it to have been and I’ve spent more time waiting for a match than actually playing it, but I can see the game the development studio wanted to make in the background. Knowing what it could have been makes it a little more fun to play since I’m more focused on that than the outcome of the matches, but it leaves me sad once the match is over because I feel like I’m missing out on what would have been an amazing opportunity.

Until September of 2018, the game is free to play for anyone who downloads it. If you want a glimpse into what is an amazing world and what could have been a game to remember a few decades on, download it and play a few matches, even if it’s just with a bunch of bots. You might be frustrated, but you won’t be disappointed.